Have a Good Laugh at 2009

Let’s be honest. This year, well, t’was a bit of a downer. But humorist Dave Barry has an amusing take on the last year of the aughts (or perhaps the aught-nots). You should read the entire column, but here’s the intro:

It was a year of Hope — at first in the sense of “I feel hopeful!” and later in the sense of “I hope this year ends soon!”

It was also a year of Change, especially in Washington, where the tired old hacks of yesteryear finally yielded the reins of power to a group of fresh, young, idealistic, new-idea outsiders such as Nancy Pelosi. As a result Washington, rejecting “business as usual,” finally stopped trying to solve every problem by throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at it and instead started trying to solve every problem by throwing trillions of taxpayer dollars at it.

Talk to Congress the Right Way

Don’t worry, my headline might be misleading — this isn’t from the "General, don’t call me ma’am, call me Senator" category of Congressional communication.

Though you too are instructed to be a little full of yourself when communicating with Congress. Grassroots consultant Christopher Kush spoke with Congress.org recently, explaining ways for constituents to effectively communicate with government. He makes some interesting points about relating on an emotional level about your story rather than simply spewing wonky talking points about issues:

In your book, you talk about the importance of telling your story. What do you mean by that?

Sometimes when people are sending a message to Washington, D.C., they assume that they should sound like a lobbyist and get very technical in detail.

At my consulting firm, we try to get people to write like they normally speak. It’s not because we think they couldn’t talk about the technical details, but because it’s a more effective way to get their message across.

Telling your story helps elected officials understand how proposed legislation will play out in the real world with people like you.

It’s also one of the only ways we have of keeping a policy discussion from being mind-numbingly boring.

What if my story isn’t that interesting?

People often get stuck because they feel if they don’t have the perfect story to be a poster child for their issue then their letter won’t be effective.

That’s not true. By sharing their story, they show that the issue is important to them and by extension the people who live in their district.

You do not have to be personally affected in a particularly dramatic way for your story to be interesting to an elected official.

10 E-mails to Delete

Not all e-mail scams start with the easy to detect con: “I’m a rich Nigerian prince who needs your help moving millions of dollars. And guess what – I’ll give you a hefty sum of money if you just help me out and provide your bank account number.”

Cnet’s Tech Republic (a site for IT pros) recently blogged the top 10 e-mail scams to watch out for. And some of them look remarkably similar to legitimate messages.

Here are a few to be wary of:

  1. Fake Facebook “friend” messages mimic the real deal. Pay attention to the text in the “to” and “from” fields – if it doesn’t look right, don’t click on the links. Also, make sure the URL is facebook.com (or whatever social networking site the message claims to be from) before clicking. 
  2. Virtual holiday cards are a nice way to send friends or clients an inexpensive greeting (the Chamber started creating its own two years ago). Scammers quickly picked up on the growing popularity of these though. Bogus holiday cards likely won’t tell you the name of the sender; instead it will say something like “A friend sent you a card.” Tech Republic recommends doing a web search of the card service before clicking on the greeting.
  3. If you’re not expecting a package, be leery of e-mails from what appears to be a delivery service. Scammers are sending messages from what appear to be FedEx, UPS and others that say a package could not be delivered because of a problem with the shipping address. The e-mail asks you to fill out an attached form so the parcel can be delivered. Instead of a package, you’ll end up with a computer virus from clicking on the attachment. 

Others on the list: fake admin messages; fear-mongering messages; account cancellation scams; threats from the government; "you’re a winner!"; census survey says…; and in Microsoft (or Apple or Dell or HP) we trust. Read the full list and details on how to avoid these scams on the Tech Republic web site.

Home Sweet (Business) Home

While catching up on a little reading over the holidays, I came across this little reminder about the prevalence of home-based businesses. It even coined a new term, I believe, in "homepreneur." A few of the key points from BusinessWeek:

  • An estimated 6.6 million home-based enterprises provide at least half of their owners’ household income
  • These "homepreneurs" account for over half of all U.S. businesses and employ one in 10 private-sector workers (more than 13 million total)
  • While only 35% have revenues above $125,000 (compared to 75% for non-home-based businesses), these companies measure up to others, according to researchers, on access to capital, benefits to workers, marketing and innovation

The article notes that "technology has made it easier to start and run a business from anywhere. But, just as important, there has been a chance of consciousness in the business world to recognize home-based businesses as legitimate."

Fortune’s Dumbest Moments in Business in 2009

Fortune magazine recently compiled a list of the 21 dumbest moments in the business world for 2009. Obviously, there are some automotive and stimulus-related entries, but it’s worth a look. For example, here’s one from the "workin’ hard or hardly workin’" category:

Anthony Armatys is facing up to six years in prison for his dumb move. But he’s not the only dummy in this story.

Armatys accepted a job in 2002 with telecom equipment maker Avaya but then changed his mind before he started. He was already in the payroll system however, and the company started depositing his six-figure salary into his checking account.

For five years, Armatys did not notify Avaya of its error, but his attempt to make an early withdrawal from his 401(k) prompted an investigation that led to his arrest.

In October Armatys pleaded guilty to theft and was ordered to repay the $470,995.53 in compensation he received. He faces full sentencing in January.

See the whole list here.

Giving in the Nick of Time

Is it holiday spirit or seeking better numbers on the tax return? Probably some of both. No matter the reason, the end of the year — particularly December 31 — is, by far, the leading day for online charitable donations.

One software company that operates online giving systems offered the following numbers for 2008: more than 13 times as many gifts on Dec. 31 than the daily average and 22.5 times more in money raised. A leading charity added that online is not the only route, with extra direct mail and e-mails the final week of the year also generating greatly improved responses.

The tax deduction certainly is a factor, but one fund-raising consultant was quoted as saying: "The broader base of givers doesn’t itemize, and so they don’t have tax considerations in mind. I think giving has just become part of what you do during this season."

Your thoughts: Big hearts or money talks?

Health Care: Fix What’s Broken, Don’t Break What’s Working

Reason.TV recently sat down with Cal State University – Northridge economist Glen Whitman, coauthor of the Cato Institute’s policy analysis paper, "Bending the Productivity Curve: Why America Leads the World in Innovation." Take a few minutes to hear his take on why the United States still sets the standard on medical research, even though health care in the country is far from ideal.

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Get Employees Back on Track

A recent article by Forbes asks an intriguing question about what motivates employees more – incentives vs. recognition. You can read the entire article for elaboration on each question (below) that companies should ask themselves:

It takes two to tango. These days, however, many chief executive officers worry they may be dancing alone with their employees standing idle on the sidelines. The recession has pummeled employee engagement, and poor employee morale has left CEOs feeling out of step with their workforce. What can you do to get your workers moving again? How do you capture their hearts and give them back the drive to do their very best?

Two tools are often prescribed to CEOs by their human resources experts: incentive programs and recognition programs. Incentive programs are contests usually limited to a specific group within a company, such as sales, in which employees compete to win some prize. By contrast, recognition programs acknowledge and reinforce the accomplishments of the majority of employees. They are more about long-term goals and values.

When and how these two approaches are best used can get confusing. As a CEO who has dealt with incentives and recognition for more than a decade, I offer five questions for you to ask to help you determine which may work best for you.

  1. Is your company morale in a state of emergency?
  2. Do you know what really motivates your employees?
  3. Do you just need to hit a quarterly target or deadline?
  4. Are you trying to motivate your entire workforce or just your star performers?
  5. Are you and your team committed to making employee engagement both an art and a science?

How to Not Go Out of Business

BusinessWeek offers thoughts on how to turn around a struggling business by studying your customers and paying close attention to your brand:

As you study your customers, look for things that aren’t working for them. The better you understand the pain points within and around your industry, the better you can enhance your brand’s relevance. Run-flat tires reduce the inconvenience (and danger) people feel when they run over a nail. Satellite radio eliminates the annoyance of static on lonely interstate highways. The Egg McMuffin lessens the hassle of eating in the car. Even minor enhancements can have a major impact on customer satisfaction, from a curved shower rod (who would have thought you could keep that clingy curtain at bay) to a Web form that remembers personal data (key in my address? again?) to a simple apple slicer (great for you and me, even if it’s not so good for Band-Aid).

Once you have a solid list of pain points, brainstorm about how you might relieve them. This is where understanding the changing lifestyles of your target is vital, as it gives you a sense of what they’ll be wanting/needing/expecting down the road. Some new ideas may require a costly and significant overhaul of the way you do business, while others will only require a simple process change, ordering option, or service enhancement. Over time you’ll probably implement a variety of ideas encompassing all of the above.

Need a head start? Try imagining solutions from the perspective of well-known, well-respected brands. For each pain point, ask: "How would Nordstrom (JWN) overcome this problem if they were in our business?" "How would Southwest Airlines (LUV) approach this challenge?" "What would the Marines Corps do about this issue?" Nike (NKE), Ritz-Carlton, Harley-Davidson (HOG), the Mayo Clinic—you can drop any number of companies into this equation that will cause you to consider different ways of relieving the pain. Many of your ideas won’t be practical (and some may not even be possible), but the exercise will open your mind to creative solutions.

Regardless of how you go about innovating, make sure you’re continually pursuing the next thing, because a company’s commitment to staying relevant must never cease. As you consistently address your customers’ evolving expectations and overcome the things that frustrate them, improvements that by themselves may only be measured in inches will move your company miles from where it is today. That’s where your customers will be. As long as you’re there to meet them, they’re likely to stick around.

Tax News: Good to Be Tied to Arkansas in This Case

Interesting numbers from the Tax Foundation, which is in the business of analyzing interesting (tax) numbers. Its annual review of what states did with their tax policies included some strong praise for Indiana. A few excerpts from the release and a link to the full study, which takes some to task for targeted tax hikes and accounting gimmicks (instead of reducing spending).

Nine states increased individual income tax rates (five states reduced their rates), six states raised general sales tax rates, 17 states increased excise taxes on cigarettes and five states increased rates of alcohol excise taxes.
 
“Two states – Arkansas and Indiana – managed to roll back spending growth commitments and take actions to limit spending, but other states have either kicked the budget can down the road or increased taxes,” said Tax Foundation Director of State Projects Joseph Henchman, who authored Tax Foundation Fiscal Fact No. 204, “A Review of Significant State Tax Changes During 2009.”  

“With state revenues declining due to the tough economic situation, most state leaders in 2009 have tapped high-income earners, smokers, out-of-state business transactions, or other targeted groups, those being the only people that politicians feel safe raising taxes on,” Henchman notes. 

California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin increased individual income tax rates. States that increased sales taxes include California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina and the District of Columbia.
 
Other miscellaneous tax changes in 2009 include obesity and soda taxes, excise taxes on plastic bags (often mischaracterized as “fees”) and “Amazon” taxes, which force out-of-state retailers to collect sales taxes from customers if the companies have affiliate and advertising relationships with in-state businesses.